Choosing Big-Wall Projects

It seems like every summer, Outdoor Research Ambassador Nik Berry ticks off another big project climb: In 2011, he did the first free ascent of Zion's Lunar X (5.13, 9 pitches), and in 2012, he ticked the third ascent of El Cap mega-route The Prophet (5.13d, 19 pitches). Last summer, he worked with James Lucas to redpoint Final Frontier (5.13, 9 pitches), an old aid route on Yosemite's Fifi Buttress, and in August 2014, he teamed up with Mason Earle and David Alfrey to do the first free ascent of Sendero Luminoso (Grade V 5.13d) on Mt. Hooker in Wyoming's Wind River Range—in a day.

We picked Nik's brain on why big projects appeal to him.

OR: You've done a number of hard multi-pitch projects in the last few years. What appeals to you about big-wall projects, as opposed to single-pitch routes that are at the upper edge of your ability? 

Nik: All types of rock climbing require and teach the climber paramount skills. The skills may be physical, mental, or even nunchuk skills. Climbing multi-pitch routes requires a broader skill base, gained from climbing many difficult single-pitch routes. Multi-pitch climbing is like the comprehensive exam looming at the end of every semester. I love seeing if I’ve retained all the skills to need for the demands of a difficult multi-pitch route. 

Multi-pitch routes also offer more stimulation for an ADD freakshow like myself. Even peeing is fun on a multi-pitch route!

OR: What's drawn you to the past few projects you've worked on? 

Nik: Last May I climbed the Hallucinogen Wall in the Black Canyon with my homie Hayden Kennedy. The history, difficulty, reputation and magnitude made the wall alluring. This was an exception to what normally draws me to projects, however. I’m usually drawn to rocks by aesthetics. For instance, I just returned from Mt. Hooker where Mason Earle, David Allfrey and I finished up freeing Sendero Luminoso. This line follows an immaculate seam, and it's one of the most stunning lines I have ever seen. It gets me SO jazzed thinking about it. When trying something difficult for you, it's important to make sure it inspires you. 

OR: What's the process like for you, pushing ahead and hoping you can redpoint all the pitches, but not knowing?

Nik: This is the part separating big-wall free climbers from single-pitch climbers or boulderers. Big-wall free climbing does require a broad skill set, but many people have the skills necessary to be successful big-wall free climbers. Few people, however, enjoy the blue-collar work involved in big-wall free climbing—like hiking crippling loads, solo sessions and massive days. To free a big wall, you must enjoy the process of labor and climbing. If you enjoy the process, then sending is just a bonus. I love the process, so redpointing is great, but so is hanging on a wall listening to Katy Perry and dancing at the anchor. 

OR: Do you think most people who climb would benefit from a "big idea" climb? 

Nik: For sure! Projects give purpose to our training and lives in general. They give you something to continually strive for. Mega projects keep you motivated through low psych periods. As cheesy as it may sound, I always put a topo or picture of my next route on my computer to maintain motivation. 

OR: What's next on your list? 

Nik: Should I tell? Why not. It has been a lifetime climbing goal for me to climb one of my climbing hero’s routes on the best cliff in the world: Tommy Caldwell’s Dihedral Wall.